Dennis Zongker describes himself as “like a professional hobbyist.” He’s one of the owners of family business Zongkers Custom Furniture in Omaha, where he spends his workdays building projects like kitchens, dining tables and entertainment centers.
But, “my hobby is woodworking, too,” Dennis said, which means, “My days are at least 12 hours.” When he turns to his own projects, “Mine’s a little more creative. I’m into marquetry,” he said.
One of his favorite pieces, for instance, is a Griffin End Table, featuring a lion’s face, with eagle wings, and violin scrolls on the feet. Carved out of basswood, the table has a top with marquetry made from purpleheart, myrtle burl, white oak and fruitwood, as well as purpleheart inlays. “I wanted to make a piece I really loved,” Dennis said.
When they were younger, Dennis and his brother worked for a while at their stepfather’s cabinet shop. Dennis also was a professional musician for a time, but when he and his brother started the Zongkers shop, “I traded in my amps to help us get started, with a table saw and a band saw and stuff.”
The company now consists of Dennis, his brother, who works on the sales side — “it’s good that we don’t compete,” Dennis said — his wife, his son, and six employees. They’ve been in business for 24 years; at first, Dennis said, “it was a struggle to build the name up and also learn at the same time.”
In addition to learning through trial and error, Dennis said he has a “huge library of woodworking magazines and books, over 1,000.” His favorites? “Those that tell about the history of past woodworkers. It’s kind of neat to see how they did it back in the day, how they lived their lives.”
While he might not make projects exactly like those woodworkers, “I think I like every style, from Art Deco to Beidermeier to Greene and Greene,” he said. “I appreciate anything that’s well-made.”
He’s also passing on his woodworking skills to others: in addition to his son working for the business, and teaching a friend of his son’s to be a furniture maker, Dennis teaches local carving and handcut dovetail classes, and is the author of a recently published book, Wooden Boxes (The Taunton Press, ISBN 978-1-60085-522-1). “It’s a good feeling to teach the younger people, or anybody,” he said. “Boxes was a great way to teach techniques: segmented turnings, marquetry, carving, banding, inlay, how to make your own radiuses, all sorts of neat stuff. I love making boxes, too.”
“There’s quite a few techniques in the book that I use in everyday woodworking,” Dennis said. “like making my own decorative banding. I also like to use the lathe to turn my own pulls or feet or knobs or bedposts.”
He also likes lions, and to play chess: those two themes appear in a couple of his other favorite projects: a Chess Table and Chairs and a Carved Lion Ball and Claw Coffee Table.
The chess table, made of maple and walnut to create distinctive color contrasts for the opposing teams, is something Dennis made for himself, because “I love to play chess and I love woodworking.” After a designer saw the piece about 15 years ago, Dennis made a couple of others, “but I kept the original set.”
The lion’s foot coffee table, on the other hand, was a piece for a client. “The house it went into looked like a castle,” Dennis said. He made a clay model to work out the design for the lion’s foot grasping the ball, “the same way like they used to do for an eagle’s foot ball and claw.” The table itself was 54″ square and 18″ high, with a maple burl parquetry veneer center, an ebony inlay in a ribbon stripe border, and mahogany construction.
“I love working with mahogany. Genuine mahogany is one of my best, because it’s beautiful and has a great grain pattern,” Dennis said. “The density is really balanced, so it’s great for carving, or machining, or anything.”
And Dennis, in general, likes anything woodworking — and is spreading that taste to the rest of the family. His wife, for instance, works on the business side of Zongkers Handcrafted Custom Furniture during the day, but has recently taken up woodburning as a hobby.
“She’s following in my footsteps,” Dennis said. He noted that, on Saturdays, “we try to only stay half a day” at the office. “It’s pretty much a life filled with woodworking.”